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SUMMER HOURS, 2008
Movie Reviews!

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SUMMER HOURS  MOVIESUMMER HOURS , 2008
Movie Reviews

Director: Olivier Assayas

Starring: Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier

Review by Leslie McMurtry
SYNOPSIS:

Adrienne, Frédéric, and Jérémie are three grown-up siblings converging on their mother’s rambling country house for her 75th birthday. All three have disparate, full lives of their own, with two of the three living outside France. When their mother confronts her mortality, each of her children will have to put up his or her own brave front and decide the mature and melancholy business of apportioning out her estate.

REVIEW:

It’s a beautiful summer day in France at a rambling country estate just outside of Paris. Hélène (Edith Scob) is surrounded by her three children and many grandchildren for her 75th birthday celebration and the end of the families’ summer holidays. The grandchildren range from preteen Sylvie to three toddlers, and their stay in the lush, Giverny-like grounds is idyllic. Hélène’s eldest is Frédéric (Charles Berling), an economist who lives in Paris with his wife Lisa (Dominique Reymond) and their two children. Second is Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a bohemian designer who lives in New York. The youngest is Jérémie (Jérémie Rénier), who has moved with his wife Angela and their three young children to China, where he presides over a booming business. Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan) is the fussy, old-fashioned live-in housekeeper. Hélène has made it her life’s work to be the guardian of the artistic legacy of her uncle, Paul Bérthier. Her house includes paintings and decorative art of inestimable value, from Corot landscapes to unique vases and bowls. Hélène has come to terms with her encroaching mortality and forces Frédéric, as the eldest and the only sibling living in France, to view the collection. Contrary to Frédéric’s expectations, his mother does not expect the collection to remain intact or within the family; she fully expects the house to be sold, the treasures to be donated to a museum, and the family to disperse, never more to spend their summer holidays there together. Frédéric balks. Walking with his wife Lisa, he expresses his annoyance regarding this conversation with his mother, but Lisa believes his mother will be proved right.

In a mother-daughter conversation, Adrienne describes the circumstances that led her to go to art school. Unlike Frédéric, who feels he was pushed into his career by his parents but still retains a deep appreciation for art in general and Paul Bérthier in particular, Adrienne is independent, full of wanderlust, and sure of herself. She gets upset when her mother offers her a favorite silver tea set after her death. Meanwhile, she criticizes Jérémie’s capitalist approach to business in China. Frédéric, concerned, finds out from Éloïse that his mother has been gloomy and contemplative of late.

As quickly as they descended, the children and grandchildren disappear again, with a promise to all meet up again in San Francisco later in the year, for the launch of the English-language retrospective on Paul Bérthier. Hélène, alone and diminished, resists Éloïse’s offers of companionship. Some time later, Frédéric has just heard of his mother’s death and goes to the estate to go over the details of her funeral.

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Feeling the burden more than the other two, he expresses his repressed grief. The three meet up in Paris to go over the future of the estate. To Frédéric’s utter shock, both his brother and sister wish to sell the house, break up the art collection, and use the money to go their separate ways. Jérémie and his wife have committed to at least five years in China and need capital to buy a house there. Adrienne has gotten serious with her American boyfriend and plans to stay in New York. So none of them see keeping the house for holidays as practical, and for them, the money involved in selling the collection is more worthwhile than keeping the artwork—prized by their mother, intrinsically linked to the great-uncle they never knew—together. Frédéric is hurt and upset but eventually agrees to go ahead, even spearheading the effort since he is in Paris and the other two abroad.

As time goes on, the siblings learn surprising revelations about their family. Frédéric and Jérémie fight, then patch it up over drinks—they wonder at their mother’s inherent snobbery over their father, who was a radiator salesman. All three are shocked when they recall the San Francisco event, in which their mother more or less admitted to being romantically involved with her uncle. Frédéric cannot accept this, but when he consults a family friend from the Musée d’Orsay, he is forced to accept some uneasy truths about his mother. Just when it seems the entire collection will be taken by the Musée d’Orsay, Frédéric is called to the police station to pick up his daughter Sylvie. Will the family completely break down in the wake of all these changes?

The acting in Summer Hours is top-notch, with Charles Berling making Frédéric extremely sympathetic, and Juliette Binoche is always a joy to behold in whatever she’s in. The film is arresting despite the mundane subject matter. Yet, perhaps it is this very mundane-ness that makes Summer Hours so moving. No matter what your situation or your stage in life, you can find someone within the film to relate to; everyone has lost or thinks of a future situation where one will lose a parent, and for that reason, it touches on sensitive but compelling subject matter. It also operates along dynamic axes, such as posterity vs the comfort of home, as when Frédéric and Lisa visit the furniture of their childhood home now ensconced beautifully, but sterilely, in the Musée d’Orsay. And of course, honoring one’s parents vs having an individual and full life.

Summer Hours never goes for the obvious. Like a novel that slowly reveals character through exposition, what we learn about the characters is gradually revealed. We don’t see the death throes or the funeral of Hélène, learning of her death only through scenes where her children first learn of it or have to make arrangements because of it. In a way, we’ve come in at the tail-end of Hélène’s story with Paul Bérthier, but that overlaps with the beginning of Sylvie’s. The use of the brilliant works of art grounds the story nicely and lends to the visual beauty that bookends Summer Hours.

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